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How a Taiwanese former legislator helped free 26 Asian sailors held hostage by Somalia pirates




Tsai Cheng-yuan, 62, got involved while serving in island’s legislature after Asian crew of Omani-registered Naham 3 fishing boat seized in March 2012

Having taken up the cause of a fellow Taiwanese held by Somali pirates, former legislator Tsai Cheng-yuan faced one hurdle after another.

Government agencies at home and in three foreign capitals snubbed his pleas for help. Nervous donors who provided funds for a ransom demanded a money-back guarantee if the hostage was not released.

Even after the money was paid, the man refused to return home unless 25 others held with him were also freed. The group were finally released on October 22, after more than four and a half years – the second-longest period hostages had ever spent in Somalia.

“I just have this faith that if a country doesn’t give up on its citizens in trouble, it will be loved by its people,” said Tsai, 62, who served in Taiwan’s legislature for 20 years and now runs the chief opposition Nationalist Party’s central policy committee.

Tsai got involved while still serving in the legislature when the wife and daughter of Shen Jui-chang sought his help.

Shen was chief engineer on the Omani-registered Naham 3 fishing boat, which was hijacked in March 2012 by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean, 120km from the Seychelles islands.

The crew were taken to Somalia and held in “deplorable conditions”, the Colorado-based nonprofit Oceans Beyond Piracy said. Everyone became malnourished and two hostages died of illness.

The engineer’s family came to Tsai after having no luck with other elected officials in Taiwan, said the former legislator, who had gained fame for having helped a Taiwanese woman escape from the Muslim rebel group Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines in 2012.

“They had been asking around for help without progress,” Tsai said on Friday. “They were afraid that Shen Jui-chang’s health wasn’t too good and that he couldn’t handle Somalia.”

Tsai said he first talked to government agencies in Taiwan but was refused help. Like some other governments, Taiwan does not negotiate with pirates for fear of encouraging future abductions. However, Taiwan’s foreign ministry said in a statement on October 23 that it had contacted Omani officials and kept in touch with hostage-release nonprofit organisations to follow the case.

So Tsai contacted the governments of Shen’s fellow hostages, who come from Cambodia, China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. A foreign affairs police official from the Philippines and the deputy general secretary of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits – the agency responsible for contacts with Taiwan – joined his cause.

The Chinese official, Wang Xiaobing, knew Lee Chuan-hung, the chairman of the Taiwanese charity, Wei Ge Culture and Education Charity Foundation. Lee donated US$500,000 in ransom money while its staff asked other charities to also contribute.

At a news conference last week, An Fengshan, the spokesman of Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said the association had played an active role in obtaining the hostages’ release, assisted by the Chinese foreign ministry. An said international organisations and other “relevant parties” aided in the effort, without identifying them.

Tsai chased Taiwanese companies for donations to help pay the ransom for the chief engineer. Some were reluctant to give money because they feared pirates would reject the final offer, so Tsai promised their money back if Shen was not released.

The former legislator also found a law firm in Hong Kong that charged only a minor processing fee to hold the ransom money. For reasons they never gave, the pirates required payment in hundred-dollar bills issued only in 2005, Tsai said. Such notes predate a 2013 redesign that included new safety features.

Tsai said he used an intermediary’s name to sign the agreement with the law firm in order to hide his official connections. “Otherwise, if it was suspected the Taiwan government was involved, it would be hard to discuss ransom and could cost a lot,” he said.

Once the money was raised for Shen, talks dragged on as the pirate gang repeatedly changed leaders because of infighting, Tsai said.

Shen then threw a new kink into the negotiations when he insisted on staying, out of fear the other hostages might be killed or stranded without his help getting money for their release.

“I was thinking, ‘I’m 58 and if I leave there’s no one who can lead them’,” Shen said last week following his return to Taiwan. “I told the pirates, ‘If I go, then everyone has to go’.”

Faced with Shen’s demand, Tsai went back to pleading for donations. His Philippine and Chinese backers kept chasing donors in their homelands.

Money raised would ultimately pay ransoms, aid to the impoverished families of the 10 mainland Chinese sailors and a fee for the hostage negotiator, a former UN official. Negotiations took 18 months.

Shen told reporters after reaching Taiwan he was “deeply moved” by the help he received.

Tsai declined to say how much was ultimately paid to the pirates for fear of encouraging more hostage-taking. Such cases have declined drastically in recent years in the wake of international naval patrols in the Gulf of Oman and stepped-up security aboard larger vessels.

Recalling the Herculean effort to free Shen and his crew, Tsai said it was up to younger legislators to help in future. “I’m a retired man now.”


Somali News

Somali traders boycott business over new government tax



MOGADISHU, Feb. 18 (Xinhua) — Traders in Somalia’s largest market, Bakara, on Sunday boycotted business over what they termed as punitive tax measures imposed by the government.

Traders told Xinhua that they will keep off from the Mogadishu-based market until the federal government scraps the 5 percent mandatory sales tax it imposed recently.

“As you see the market has closed and we will continue until the government responds to our complaint about the tax,” Abdisamad Mohamed, one of the traders, told Xinhua.

“We are not refusing to pay taxes but this is heavy burden for our business,” Mohamed said. “We are requesting the government to take steps to lower it.”

Another trader, Shariff Abdullahi, said the imposition of taxes had stalled business as traders cannot collect their goods from the port in Mogadishu.

“We have imported goods from the port and we cannot pick them because of the taxes the government has imposed,” Abdullahi said.

However, Somali Finance Minister Abdirahman Beileh has maintained that taxes must be paid to enable the government to offer services.

Beileh told the media last week that the government had arrived at the decision and that it was not optional.

“Today I clarified the purpose of the sales tax and the importance of paying legally mandated taxes to the Somali people. The payment, collection and budgeted utilization of these funds is a must for Somali development,” Beileh said. “We must finance our future. This is the bottom line.”

Somali parliament late last year passed a 274 million U.S. dollar budget for 2018, and Beileh noted that the government would bolster efforts to mobilize domestic tax collection to finance the budget as the country seeks to cut dependence on foreign donors.

The government has not yet responded to the ongoing strike.

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Somali News

Somali refugees enslaved in Libya return home



Eleven Somali refugees held captive in Libya for years have returned home. Many African refugees have been tortured and some were sold as slaves in the country, which was used as a transit hub for those trying to reach Europe.

Al Jazeera’s Katia Lopez-Hodoyan reports.

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Somali News

Somali Migrants Returning From Libya Tell of Abuse, Horror



It was an emotional moment for the nearly dozen Somali migrants who were repatriated to Mogadishu from Libya on Saturday.

Some fell to their knees, crying; others placed their foreheads to the ground in prayer; while some chanted the Somalia national anthem as they disembarked from a Turkish Airways plane that had flown them from Libya, where some had been stranded for years, to the Somali capital.

Since 2014, Libya has become a major transit point for migrants from Africa and the Middle East who are trying to get to Europe to flee instability and violence.

Somalia’s Deputy Prime Minister Mahdi Mohamed Guled, members of parliament and representatives from civil society organizations welcomed the migrants at the airport. The migrants then told stories of abuse, fear and horror they had experienced in Libya.

Somali migrants disembark from a plane upon arrival from Libya to be repatriated in their country at Mogadishu International Airport, Feb. 17, 2018. (H.K. Qoyste/VOA)

Survivor’s tale

Abdikarim Mohamed Omar, 22, who shared his story with VOA’s Somali service, was among those repatriated Saturday. He said he left Somalia in 2016 and traveled to Libya via Ethiopia and Sudan.

Before reaching Libya, Omar said, he lost several of his Somali friends during the journey. At one point, he said, they fought with Eritrean migrants.

“I was among 150 migrants packed into a truck by smugglers from Sudan — 100 Eritreans and 50 Somalis. They mercilessly forced us into a truck that fit only 30 people. Some of the Somali migrants were thrown out of the truck into the desert. Then we fought with the Eritreans for survival. Several of my friends were killed during the conflict,” Omar said.

Earlier this week in Libya, a truck packed with more than 200 illegal migrants, mainly from Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan, overturned near Bani Walid, killing 19 of them. Sixty others were injured.

Omar said that once he reached Libya, he was filled with painful memories that he could not forget. He and other migrants were taken to the Kufra detention center, in southeast Libya.

“They lock us up in a room, where we hardly eat. You have no place to urinate. The room is overcrowded with migrants. Some of us sit the whole night, and some sleep a few hours. Every morning, they severely beat you with iron rods and sticks,” he said.

“To taste the pain and convince our parents to pay them, the smuggler woke us up with beatings early in the morning and send us to silence or sleep at night with beatings,” Omar said. “It was like our daily greetings and the first communication between the smugglers and the detainees.”

He continued, “Because of the constant torture [and] hunger, many of the migrants in the detention room where I was died, including my Somali friend who shared a blanket with me.”

Fleeing Africa, Middle East

Since 2014, more than 600,000 people have crossed the central Mediterranean to Italy. But the number of illegal migrants housed in Libyan detention centers has risen dramatically this year since armed groups in the western city of Sabratha began preventing boats from departing for Europe.

After clashes in Sabratha in September, thousands of migrants held near the coast were transferred to detention centers under the nominal control of the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli.

A Somali migrant from Libya kisses the ground at Mogadishu International Airport upon arriving back in the Somali capital, Feb. 17, 2018. (Somali Ministry of Information)

However, Amnesty International said in December 2017 that up to 20,000 people were being held in detention centers and were subject to “torture, forced labor, extortion and unlawful killings.”

Other human rights organizations have said similar things in recent months.

Late last year, Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairman of the African Union Commissions, said an estimated 400,000 to 700,000 African migrants were being detained in dozens of camps across the chaotic North African country, often being held under inhumane conditions.

Omar said he was lucky to escape from the Kufra detention center months ago, but he has since lived in Tripoli, in constant fear and hiding.

On Saturday, he was among 10 migrants repatriated to Mogadishu.

The repatriation effort was ordered by Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo after U.S. broadcaster CNN showed footage of a slave auction in Libya where migrant Africans were shown being sold.

“Following the order of President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, the government has repatriated 10 Somali migrants from Libya and 30 more will be repatriated soon,” said Guled, the deputy prime minister.

Seeking to repatriate Somalis

The Somali government is working to return to their homeland a large number of Somali migrants who are in Libya. Earlier this week, that effort hit a snag, however, when the delegation sent to Libya was unable to persuade migrants to abandon the dangerous journey to Europe and instead return to Somalia.

The migrants have told government officials behind the repatriation effort that they have suffered during the journey to Libya but feel they have “nothing else to lose.”

Upon arrival, the 10 Somalis were registered with the government. For six months, they will have their relocation expenses paid for by the Somali government. The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are providing some training to help the recent returnees rejoin their communities and build their lives.

Mariam Yassin, special envoy for migrants and children’s rights of Somalia, was among the delegation sent by the Somali government to Libya this week to try to persuade migrants to return home. She said those who returned Saturday had survived a harsh journey.

“Among them are migrants who have spent three years in the hands of smugglers in Kufra, [in] south Libya. And now Allah saved them from the unbearable torments and torture they have been mentally and physically subjected to,” Yassin said.

Ahmed Abdikarim Nur, Somalia’s commissioner of refugees and internally displaced persons, said because of the extent of the abuses they faced, some migrants could not openly tell their horrific stories.

“They told us that they feel ashamed and embarrassed. … They have been subjected to all inhumane abuses against mankind,” Nur said.

The Somali government plan was to repatriate more than 5,000 migrants stranded in detention centers in Libya, but so far only about 40 migrants have accepted the repatriation.

“Our plan is to repatriate all those who want to return home,” Nur said.

Hassan Kafi Qoyste contributed this report from Mogadishu.

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